The coroner is in for his final day on the job. Let us sift through the aftermath of the ferocious final battle.
The skinny: The champion has retained their title. After five games, the Tampa Bay Lightning defeated the Montreal Canadiens and shared their moment in the sun with the delighted fans. It was a tale of two teams: one was the defending champion who had to overcome the hungry young foes in their division, the other the classic underdog story that toppled heavy favorites. Ultimately, however, this rendition of the story would see Goliath defeat David, as the Lightning repeat for the first time since the Penguins in 2016-17.
Now, as it pertains to time and with other projects on the way, I decided that, for the Lightning and Canadiens postmortems, to combine the two to explain not only how this series went, but how the Lightning were able to remain on top of the food chain in the NHL. The crystal ball section will go into what both teams do next, and that will serve as a wrap-up for this series. Thank you so much for all who stuck with it. Now, where were we? Oh yeah, the postmortem…
Early leads: If there was one thing you could trust the Lightning and Canadiens to do, it was get out to an early lead and stifle the opposition from getting back into the game. For example, in the series where Montreal upset the Vegas Golden Knights, Montreal scored first in four of the six games, with their average time per game with the lead being double that of Vegas. Seems like a stark difference, right? It was nothing compared to the dominance that Tampa Bay showed, scoring first in all four of its wins this series and leading for an average of 32:28 per game. The Canadiens, meanwhile, only held the lead for an average of 5:20 per game. That’s pure domination of a team.
Nikita Kucherov: It felt strange calling a bona fide star in the league an X-factor coming into the postseason, but that was exactly the situation that Nikita Kucherov found himself in. An offensive dynamo who played a key part in Tampa Bay’s cup run last season, he ended up needing hip surgery that would keep him on the shelf for the entire regular season. When he came back for the postseason, it was unclear whether he would be one hundred percent. He didn’t do too bad…he just happened to lead the Lightning with 32 points in the postseason. It’s the second straight postseason that Kucherov has scored 30+ points (the other two guys to reach that are some guys named Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux.) The fact Kucherov was not only able to produce, but light up the playoffs despite missing the entire season, is a testament to just how good Kucherov is. He’s set to replace Alex Ovechkin as the NHL’s next big Russian superstar…
Andrei Vasilevskiy: …unless his goaltender and compatriot has anything to say about it. This year’s winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy for playoff MVP, Vasilevskiy was dominant throughout the postseason. He was one of two goaltenders to have a GAA under two (for context, the other was Toronto’s Jack Campbell, and we know what happened to the Maple Leafs), but the dominance extends far beyond that. He scored a shutout in every series-clinching game, and he is the first goaltender to get shutouts in two straight Cup-clinching games since Bernie Parent in 1974-75. For further context, the only other goaltender to have five series-clinching shutouts is Chris Osgood; Vasilevskiy managed that total in five straight games. He was also dominant in terms of save percentage as well, as his .937 mark is good to tie for 15th all-time in a single postseason. There is no more debate: Andrei Vasilevskiy is the best goaltender in the world.
The crystal ball: So now on to the obvious question: can Tampa be the first team to three-peat since the New York Islanders won four straight Cups between 1980 and 1983? It’s possible, but they’ll have an uphill climb. The flat cap means that the Lightning are starting a few million dollars over the salary cap, and they’ll have young players like Cal Foote and Cup-winning goal scorer Ross Colton looking for extensions. It’s likely that the Lightning will push the Seattle Kraken to take Spokane native Tyler Johnson, but it will take a decent package to do so (a young NHL-caliber player like Mathieu Joseph should help move things along there). Even then, the Lightning will be pressed right against the cap, so a contract will have to be moved for relief. Whether it’s Ondrej Palat, Ryan McDonagh, Anthony Cirelli, or Alex Killorn that gets moved between now and the start of next season, this summer is shaping up to be one of bloodletting for the Lightning.
As for the Canadiens, they now face the challenge of handling the weight of expectation. Marc Bergevin and Dominique Ducharme have earned some goodwill back with the Montreal fans, but now they’ll be tasked to keep the faith. It’ll start with a relatively interesting offseason. Jesperi Kotkaniemi will be looking for a decent extension as a restricted free agent, and the Canadiens should look into resigning two-way forwards Phillip Danault and Joel Armia. They don’t have to think too much about planning for extensions, as Nick Suzuki and Alexander Romanov will hit restricted free agency as Paul Byron and Ben Chiarot come off the books. There’s also the possibility of trading Jonathan Drouin, who left the team for personal reasons in April and who fans have soured on after watching Mikhail Sergachev (the player Drouin was traded for) win yet another Cup. He’s becoming more well-rounded in his game, but what kind of price can he be expected to fetch in a market that’s dominated with chatter of Jack Eichel and Vladimir Tarasenko?